I am a historian of the nineteenth and twentieth century Middle East.
While my research has focused on Egypt during the First World War (1914-1918), I want to push the field of modern Middle Eastern history away from its focus on the nation as the primary unit of analysis. My dissertation, On the Home Front: Food, Medicine, and Disease in World War I, addressed a notable gap in Egyptian history, yielding a wealth of information about the war’s impact on the civilian population that spanned borders.
I am using my postdoctoral year to begin moving my research trajectory from the dissertation’s focus on Egypt to examine transnational connections throughout the Eastern Mediterranean in the monograph. Beyond that, I have started to explore the broader global colonial experience of the First World War for a second project.
On the Home Front adds a new dimension to the historiography of wartime Egypt through exploration of the conditions on the Egyptian home front during World War I, particularly for rural peasants and the urban poor. I demonstrated that government price control policies and military requisitioning created food shortages and famine among the rural populations and urban poor, and how, in turn, epidemic diseases spread throughout the population. I also examined tensions over the spread of sexually transmitted infections and over the legality and morality of sex work, which proliferated during the war. I show that, for the Egyptian civilian population, the war involved suffering, starvation, and death; what Rob Nixon has termed “slow violence.”
My focus on environmental and medical impacts both supplements and challenges the historiography of early twentieth century Egypt, which tends to be political or economic in focus. Much of the attention has focused on a nationalist uprising in the spring of 1919, which tends to be positioned as Year Zero with all other events teleologically leading to it or resulting from it. That the war years represent a period when nationalist pressures built up is an accepted part of this narrative, but wartime events tend to get short shrift, with the primary focus on classes considered political (urban elites, large landowners, and the upwardly mobile effendi class).
I am not suggesting that these histories are wrong and that I alone have the answer; rather I am adding a new dimension to this literature by providing a more complete picture of the pressures that rural peasants and the urban poor faced during the war.
While completing my dissertation, I recognized that the tendency of Middle East historians to engage only with others in our subfields is limiting; we are doing ourselves and the applicability of our work a grave disservice by not engaging in broader comparative and transnational conversations. The historiography of the war period tends to reify nations according to their postwar borders (including those of nations that did not exist until after the war). I will address this lacuna in the next stage of my research.
Transnational history involves movement—of “people, ideas, products, process and patterns that operate over, across, through, beyond, above, under, or in-between polities and societies.” In my research, I noted that famine, starvation, disease, and environmental degradation occurred in nearly every country affected by the First World War. In the Eastern Mediterranean, the crosscurrents and connections in response to such developments make the region particularly ripe for transnational exploration. Indeed, the events of the war—in this region as well as others—can only be understood by looking beyond the nation.
War of Grain: The Eastern Mediterranean During World War I
My next project, War of Grain: The Eastern Mediterranean During World War I, will address the transnational movement of people, ideas, food, and disease in and between Egypt, the Levant, Turkey, and Cyprus during the war. Similar to my work on Egypt, I argue that such movements had a direct impact on the post Sykes-Picot region and the way that both mandates and nations formed in the decade following the war.
My research shows that Egypt was not insulated from its neighbors. For example, thousands of Jewish refugees—many of them Zionist settlers evicted by the Ottoman army—were evacuated to Alexandria, while starving and penniless Armenians managed to get to Egypt after their deportation from Anatolia and established a refugee camp near Port Said. Fears about disease-carrying refugees consumed Egyptians port cities and drove much of the conversation of the government’s quarantine board.
Other parts of the region were not insulated from Egypt either, nor were all movements human in nature: the swarms of locusts that descended on Egypt in April 1915 went on to the Levant, where they decimated agricultural production and contributed to famine conditions that lasted into the early 1920s in some areas. Egyptian, Cypriot, and Hijazi laborers and commodities were brought in by the British military in 1917 to support the Palestine campaign, along with laborers from India and sub-Saharan Africa. Such transnational forces formed a rich tapestry of action and reaction by national governments, the British military, and civilian populations.
Since I began seriously pursuing history as a discipline, I have—with apologies to Heidegger— been interested in the lives of the everyday lives of ordinary people. The initial explorations in the study that eventually led to my dissertation focused on disease because it allowed me to venture into the lives of the lower classes through reports written by doctors, administrators, charities, and the press. Following the thesis put forth by Evan Stark that epidemics can be read as social events, I began working on the period of the First World War, after realizing that this period was excluded from most studies of Egypt. The more I learned, the more similarities I began to see between Egypt and its immediate neighbors; this has led me to even more exploration of the First World War, which has, for most of the twentieth century, treated the conflict as primarily European both in its setting and impacts.
World War 1 as a Global Event
Although Egypt remains the focus of most of my research, given my long history of personal interest, I envision future projects placing my work into conversation with work on the wartime experience in European colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.
What are the shared experiences of colonial laborers during the war—at home, in the metropole, and on the war front?
What were the cultural and social impacts of the war, and how did these contribute to political and economic developments during the interwar period?
With regards to my initial interest: are the experiences of food shortages, increased incidents of disease, and civilian suffering shared?
What global lessons can be learned by placing my research on Egypt and the Middle East into conversation with both traditional nationalist historiographies and the new corpus of research on World War I as a global event?
Working together with other scholars, I believe that we can offer a broader understanding of the war’s impact on civilian populations outside of the European theater, and understand World War I as a truly “world” changing event.
 Akira Iriye and Pierre-Yves Saunier, ‘Introduction: The Professor and the Madman’, in Akire Iriye and Pierre-Yves Saunier (eds), The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History (London, 2009), p. xviii.